Taylor Mac calls his extraordinary theatrical marathon, five years in the making, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. This title is coyly misleading, because the show is really a blazingly perceptive, wildly subjective history of the United States told by means of a 240-year music playlist. Over twenty-four hours it features 246 songs, divided by decade from 1776 to 2016, lushly performed by Mac in a creamy baritone while decked out in hilariously wacky sculptural costumes designed by Machine Dazzle and accompanied by a crack chorus and orchestra directed by Matt Ray.
Yet the marathon’s first installment, “Act I: 1776-1806” at St. Ann’s Warehouse, along with a ninety-minute section I saw last year at the Prospect Park Bandshell, left me with the strong impression that the show’s gorgeously arranged songs aren’t really its point. Sure, they’re delightful, cleverly selected, and lovingly performed. But they seem to me a dazzling pretext, an alibi for some of the slyest and smartest political theater to arrive in New York since Angels in America. Like Tony Kushner, Mac has grasped a basic and widely misunderstood fact about American theater: that politics in it needs an alibi if it wants to reach a large audience. Americans are allergic to politics onstage unless it’s wrapped in sensational theatricality.
Its politics are the most original aspect of Mac’s elaborate drag act. He is indeed, as he claims, a fabulous bridge-builder between the queerly marginal and the dully normative. Swanky new St. Ann’s Warehouse, with its $55 tickets and glassy, riverview lobby, is hardly the natural backdrop for edgy drag-club stories like Mac’s about, say, food inserted into bodily orifices (a running theme on Thursday). Yet all Mac’s stories and antics are in the service of larger points about power and identity, inclusion and exclusion, aggression and repression, and more, about which judy (Mac’s preferred pronoun--I've been misgendering judy) has a lot to say.
The songs in the show—even in the relatively obscure early period of Act I (think “Yankee Doodle Dandy”)—evoke a nonspecific nostalgia. And our affection for them along with their dynamic appropriation makes us question that nostalgia. Mac turns our sentimentality against us by luring us into thinking about it, about not only the musical sources of it but also the ideas that our ancestors guzzled, coughed and sponged up rather than truly examining. It’s the patter between songs, and often within them, that makes this clear. The patter carries the thread of unique and gritty social observation that knits the show together.
A colonial-era drinking song whose name escapes me, for instance, prompts a digression about playing beer pong at a Dartmouth frat party, which sparks a reverie about the smell of piss, which sparks another about Dartmouth’s profile as the incubator of capitalists who piss expertly on the poor. Later, a nearly nude Mac will sing while fondling and groping a bald audience member in a blue blazer, afterward turning and quipping with a wink: “I picked you because you look like you went to Dartmouth.”
At another point an old round set to a nursery rhyme—“Oh dear what can the matter be?/Johnny’s so long at the fair”—prompts a digression about the woman imagined to be singing it. Left alone at home, worried “Betty” can’t look for Johnny herself because respectable women can’t go unaccompanied to fairs. This fact leads her to wonder about her rights, and then wonder whether Johnny might possibly be tarrying with some non-respectable woman at the fair. Betty’s thoughts eventually settle on ostracism of hussies rather than solidarity with women to gain rights. Mac remarks that “in capitalistic America, we always forgive the enemy and despise the outsider”—an observation judy chillingly ties to the aftermaths of all America’s major wars.
Not everything in the grueling, three-hour, intermissionless act is as sharp and penetrating as I’ve made it sound. Nor would you want it to be, as Mac’s humor depends very much on rough, seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to take flight. (“Perfection is for assholes!”) All of that understood, I can’t think of a more worthwhile way to spend three, six, or, hell, if you have the stamina, twenty-four hours. It’s truly remarkable, for one thing, to find such deep patriotism in such an outsider artist, someone bullied and shunned who had more reason to hate than most but instead came out and imagined a bigger, more fabulous tent than any politician. You’ll never see American history in quite the same way again.